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Despite a recording career that goes back more than 25 years, Canadian composer and pianist John Stetch remains an unknown quantity for many casual jazz fans. But catching up is a snap. Black Sea Suite, performed with his group, Vulneraville, offers pleasing versions of tunes from throughout his discography, cut live. Together, they present a portrait of a fully formed artist ripe for discovery.
There’s nothing particularly radical about the work of Stetch and his quartet, whose members include tenor saxophonist Steve Kortyka, bassist Ben Tiberio and drummer Philippe Lemm. But the proficiency and intelligence of their playing shouldn’t be taken for granted. With little muss or fuss, they deliver the goods time and again.
“Urakawa,” the opener, finds Stetch laying out a quietly resonant melody that his bandmates join in unobtrusive fashion — so much so that spotlight segments for Tiberio and Lemm seem more like organic expressions than traditional solos. The subsequent “Vulneraville Suite” offers the same sort of opportunity to Kortyka, whose complementary accompaniment subtly expands into showier territory, but not at the expense of his fellow players.
This all-for-one approach is evident in the more exuberant offerings, too. “Fabled States” rings with joy, as epitomized by a tricky passage that resolves with an unexpected oom-pah, and “Black Sea Suite” reflects Stetch’s formative experiences with the Ukranian community in Edmonton by way of rhythms capable of making anyone break into an Eastern European folk dance. “Phun Toon,” for its part, is sexy and sassy, while the rousing, unpredictable “Rondeau” and a cover of Duke Ellington’s “In a Mellow Tone” bring the set to an appropriately swinging end that will leave those just discovering Stetch and company hungry for more.
Fortunately, there’s another quarter-century’s worth of material to explore. —Michael Roberts
Featured photo by Graham Haber.